March 4, 2009
The Entrepeneurial Vlogger - Participatory Culture Beyond the Professional-Amateur Divide (Pt. 1 of 2)
By: Jean Burgess and Joshua Green
YouTube's status as the dominant website for online video is a regular topic for discussion in technology, popular and academic presses. The site is often characterised as a significant challenger to the dominance of traditional broadcasting and television services - celebrated in hyperbolic fashion when Time Magazine declared "You" the 2006 Person of the Year.
Certainly, YouTube appears to be exemplary of the disruptive effect that new networks of content production and distribution are having on existing media business models. The website has been directly in the firing line of the most powerful traditional media companies, who have both challenged and harnessed the service. Some commentators (including many members of the YouTube community itself) have interpreted the entry of commercial media players into YouTube as a corporate take-over of what had been a "grassroots" media platform (despite the obvious fact that YouTube was always a commercial enterprise, although one without a clear business model). The notion that professionally produced videos (be they music videos or viral content) signals a period of corporate appropriation assumes that the "real", original YouTube was driven primarily by purely social or non- market motivations, an idea underlying some of the most significant academic work on the nature and potential of participatory media. This discourse encourages us to imagine as an ideal a specific type of participant - an ordinary, amateur individual, motivated by a desire for personal expression or community, and whose original content either expresses the mundane or everyday - represented by the ubiquitous and much-maligned "cat video," or demonstrates a high level of creativity and playfulness through the production of fan videos and mashups. There is no doubt that there is a recognizable mode of production and a particular aesthetic style associated with the culture of user-created content on YouTube; and that amateur and everyday content creation is an essential driver of this. However, upon closer inspection at how YouTube actually works, it becomes clear that amateur and professional media content, identities and motivations are not so easily separated.
While much has been made of the newly empowered, creative audience- turned-producer, in this piece we argue that some of YouTube's most significant cultural and economic implications lie elsewhere. YouTube is symptomatic of a changing media environment, but it is one where the practices and identities associated with cultural production and consumption, commercial and non-commercial enterprise, and professionalism and amateurism, interact and converge in new ways. YouTube is disruptive not only because it unsettles the producer- consumer divide; but also because it is the site of dynamic and emergent relations between market and non-market, social and economic activity. Arguing along with Banks and Potts et al that social networks are fundamental as sites of innovation and activity within the creative industries1, we frame YouTube as an example of "co- creative" culture - whatever YouTube is, it is produced dynamically (that is, as an ongoing process, over time) as a result of many interconnected instances of participation, by many different people. In order to understand these co-creative relationships, it is important not to focus exclusively on how the "ordinary consumer" or "amateur producer," are participating in YouTube; rather, we argue it is necessary to include the activities of "traditional media" companies and media professionals, and more importantly, the new models of media entrepreneurialism that are grounded in YouTube's "grassroots" culture. Hence, this piece focuses on the role that "YouTube stars" - highly visible and successful "homegrown" performers and producers - play in modelling and negotiating these co-creative relationships within the context of YouTube's social network; and the new models of entrepreneurship within participatory culture that they represent.
The YouTube-ness of Vlogs
Videoblogging, or "vlogging", is a dominant form of user-created content, and it is fundamental to YouTube's sense of community. Typically structured primarily around a monologue delivered directly to camera, vlogs are characteristically produced with little more than a webcam and some witty editing. The subject matter ranges from reasoned political debate to the mundane details of everyday life and impassioned rants about YouTube itself. Vlogging itself is not necessarily new or unique to YouTube, but it is an emblematic form of YouTube participation. The form has antecedents in webcam culture, personal blogging, and the more widespread "confessional culture"2 that characterises television talkshows and reality television focused on the observation of everyday life. In our study of 4,320 of YouTube's "most popular" videos3, vlog entries dominated the sample, making up nearly 40 percent of the videos coded from YouTube's "Most Discussed" category, and contributing just over a quarter of the videos coded at Most Responded.
Not only is the vlog technically easy to produce, generally requiring little more than a webcam and basic editing skills, it is a form whose persistent direct address to the viewer inherently invites feedback. While television content - news, sketch comedy, clips from soap operas - may draw people to YouTube for a catch-up, traditional media content doesn't appear to attract high levels of conversational and inter- creative participation,4 as measured by the numbers of comments and video responses. By contrast, more than any other form in the sample, the vlog as a genre of communication invites critique, debate and discussion. Direct response, through comment and via video, is central to this mode of engagement. Particular vlog entries frequently respond to other vlogs, carrying out discussion across YouTube and directly addressing comments left on previous entries. Given all this, it is not surprising that some of the most effective entrepreneurial uses of YouTube have been built around vlogging. Indeed, vlogging is a prototypical example of "situated creativity"5 - that is, creativity as a social process, rather than a static individual attribute; embedded within and co-evolving with YouTube as a dynamic cultural environment, not an inert publishing mechanism.
The unveiling, in 2006, of high profile YouTube star LonelyGirl15 as a "manufactured" vlogger by the YouTube community and some members of the press6 brought mainstream media attention to what might be YouTube's emblematic form, as well as to the murkiness between professional and amateur production practices on YouTube. The possibilities of inauthentic authenticity are now a part of the cultural repertoire of YouTube; subsequent vloggers have built identities around a similar ambiguity about their authenticity and trying to figure out how much of a given YouTuber's act is real (notable in the discussion around the highly popular vlogger daxflame), or how big their production team is (a topic of debate in discussion around the comedic YouTuber LisaNova), demonstrates reflexive knowledge about the construction of YouTube videos that is now part of the mode of participation within the site.
In fact, vlogs make up almost half of the top thirty "Most Subscribed" channels on YouTube. Of the thirty channels with the most subscriptions of all time, thirteen are channels predominantly built around vlogging. These vloggers range from "sxephil," a 23-year-old American who provides daily commentary and critique about news and current-affairs; to "ItsChrisCrocker", a personal vlog commenting on celebrity culture and everyday life by 20-year-old Chris Crocker who gained some notoriety in 2007 when he posted an impassioned plea imploring both the mainstream press and the blogosphere to "leave Britney [Spears] alone!"; and to "mileymandey" a vlog run for a short time by young US stars Miley Cyrus and Mandy Jiroux. This latter channel is a good example of the wide range of content styles and genres that the vlog as a form can include. Like other top channels such as Nigahiga, kevjumba, davedays and AtheneWins, mileymandey features a range of content - conversational pieces to the camera; concert footage from their performances; and short, comedic sketches. Indeed, a number of the top channels mix musical performances with "traditional" vlogging - amateur or professional performances accompanied by personal discussion or journaling.
The channels in the "most subscribed" list reveal that, although the "vlog" form is grounded in ordinary, domestic creative practice, not all vlogs are purely amateur productions, created in bedrooms for the purposes of self-expression alone. Indeed, a number of prominent vloggers, or performers using the videoblog form, are quite clearly using YouTube in an entrepreneurial way. Next week we'll consider in detail the position of vloggers as entrepreneurs.
John Banks & Sal Humphreys, "The Labour of User Co-Creators: Emergent
Social Network Markets?" Convergence: The International Journal of
Research into New Media Technologies no. 4, 2008
Jean Burgess is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane Australia; Joshua Green is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Comparative Media Studies Program working with the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT.
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Interrogating "Free" Fan Labor [part 2]
By: Gail De Kosnik
Fan productions also succeed at customizing mass media. As Andrejevic points out, personalization is one of the key promises of postindustrial capitalism, since theoretically, niche-marketing, narrowcasting, and two-way communication facilitated by the Web all promise to give consumers exactly what each of them wants. The type of customization and personalization that fan productions effect - singling out aspects of texts made for millions and elaborating on them in ways that only a certain segment of consumers will appreciate - makes mass media productions more engaging to them and others in their taste culture or demographic, and increases those fans' commitment to the mass media texts that were initially found at least somewhat lacking, frustrating, or unsatisfactory (and therefore ripe for fans' tailoring or supplementing). Fans therefore become more enmeshed in the logic of the marketplace the more they customize mass media texts, for their dedication of their own labor to mass media boosts the likelihood of fans' staying with certain TV programs, certain film franchises, or certain bands, over a longer period of time, and paying greater attention, than they might have had they not invested their labor.
Fan productions make mass media work for consumers who have been taught to desire and expect individualized products. Because of TWoP, some people watch what they consider to be "bad" television programs that they would not have viewed if no snarky commentary accompanied them. Because of fan fiction, some people watch crime dramas for the fleeting romantic scenes, knowing that those scenes will be extensively elaborated on by fan authors. The less desirable components of mass media texts are made tolerable by fan productions - commentaries, stories, videos, and so on - that emphasize, or even create, the more desirable components. The customization work that fans perform on media productions also serves to educate the culture industries about consumer preferences, thereby serving as a free source of potentially valuable audience research for media companies, as Andrejevic argues is the case with TWoP.
Fan productions thus generate "buzz" and maintain interest in media productions, which is particularly important for properties that are dormant; they heighten and extend audiences' investment in mass media texts by customizing or tailoring those texts to particular audience segments' tastes; and they yield crucial data on audience behavior and reactions. All of these functions create value for media producers, distributors, and marketers. Not all fan productions accomplish all of these functions, but most accomplish at least one, and this is not an exhaustive list of the kinds of value-creation that are made possible by fan labor (let us not forget that fans are also consumers, and that some of the value they create for media corporations is in the form of their own spending on media products). And yet, to return to the beginning of this essay, fans are happy to labor for free.
Both Terranova and Andrejevic insist that not all freely circulated cultural production constitutes exploitation. Certainly, many fans attest to the benefits of participating in communities in which money does not factor. Fans take pleasure in writing reviews or creating art, in sharing their work and receiving feedback, in exchanging their works in a gift economy, and/or in aiming for success in a reputation economy. Andrejevic discusses numerous fans who, in their responses to his survey, regarded their contributions to TWoP as "active participation, self-improvement and actualization, even creativity. Thus respondents repeatedly reiterated their assertion that TWoP allowed them to develop and hone their critical skills - the very skills that were ostensibly threatened and eroded by the 'plug-in drug.'" Many fans feel that their productivity is no chore, and therefore not equivalent to "labor." Discussions of wages, of payment, and of employment are unnecessary, according to this line of thought.
However, it is important to bear in mind that fandom is already monetized. The Internet is not free space. Sites and bandwidth must be purchased, and even not-for-profit fan websites tend to ask participants for donations to assist with the costs of traffic. Many services that host fan works, such as Live Journal, FanFiction.net, and YouTube, are for-profit enterprises whose revenues are driven by fan activity; fans must produce for these sites, and must consume what other fans have produced, in order for these sites to be successful businesses. Almost all fans pay for the privilege of participating in fan communities, at the least by purchasing access to the initial object of fandom, and usually in many more ways (purchasing products related to the object of interest, paying for a LiveJournal subscription that allows special features, buying software to assist with fan production). And occasionally, the culture industries pay fans for their work, as when video game companies buy game mods, or Hollywood studios hire fan film directors or special effects designers for industry jobs. Money already permeates fan productions.
What is disturbing about the "free" model of fan labor, in which fans "get" to increase the worth of mass media products without receiving pay, in exchange for the relief they feel at the prospect of never being sued for creating value, is that it settles for too little, too soon, in the ongoing negotiations between the culture industries, capitalist markets, and individuals. Fan productions and their relationship to, emergence from, and impact on new technologies, mass commodities and the marketplace, have greatly evolved in the last twenty years and are far from solidifying. While conceptualizing of fan labor as necessarily or essentially "free," in both its potential exchange value and its potential positioning vis-a-vis disciplinary forces, might satisfy lingering desires to think of subcultures as separate from commodity capitalism, as authentic, as resistant to dominant culture's norms, such a conceptualization does not mesh with the overwhelming evidence that the categories of consumption, production, creation, appropriation, use, and value are currently highly unstable. Terranova claims,
The digital economy is an important area of experimentation with value and free cultural/affective labor. It is about specific forms of production (Web design, multimedia production, digital services, and so on), but is also about forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such: chat, real-life stories, mailing lists, amateur newsletters, and so on. These types of cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion; that is, they have not developed simply as an answer to the economic needs of capital. However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect.
As experimentations with value and free cultural/affective labor continue, fans and media producers/distributors/marketers alike - the two groups that have, for twenty years, defined themselves as the two sides of the copyright wars - must begin to foreground the question of whether "free" is best for either side. Can, or should, fan labor be paid labor? If creative fans and innovative industry leaders push themselves to think beyond the terms of the copyright clashes of the recent past and, they will likely get to the point of asking "How can, or should, fan labor be paid?"
Cultural production in the postmodern, postindustrial, digital era has given rise to a preponderance of versions of every text, of franchises and "re-boots" and origin stories and alternative universes, of paratexts in the form of commentaries, opinions, introductions, summaries, ratings, critiques, and supplementary information. Consumers have developed an appetite for drawing from an ever- increasing bank of options with regards to narrative and aesthetic pleasures. Mass media will want to satisfy the hunger for multiplicity and variation and, in the tradition of capitalism, to continually create new needs as well. It will require the labor of consumers, of users, of fans, to both articulate and fulfill one another's many- faceted yearnings for culture, and to deploy the changing tools of production to outline new methods for making, using, buying, and selling art and entertainment. The copyright wars will soon transmute into a different form of engagement between the groups formerly known as copyright holders and fans, but exactly what form is difficult to say at this juncture. Either pioneers on both sides will forge new agreements regarding licensing and fair use, and will draft guidelines for compensation for the distributed work now required to build and sustain the cultural industries, or a new war will begin. That will be the war instigated by fans-consumers-users who realize that they are the primary producers of value in the cultural sector of the digital economy.
Abigail De Kosnik is an Assistant Professor at The Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies. She researches intersections of minority discourse with artistic appropriations, especially digital appropriations such as sampling, online fan productions, game mods, and audio and visual mash-ups; Internet piracy and "torrent culture"; narrative serializations in digital contexts; and "techno-orientalism," or Hollywood sci-fi's equation of futuristic technologies with Asia and Asianness. In June 2008, she was awarded her Ph.D. by Northwestern University's Program in Comparative Literary Studies and the Department of Radio/Television/ Film. Her dissertation, "Illegitimate Media: Race, Gender, and Censorship in Digital Remix Culture" argues that digital remix was largely invented by African Americans and Anglo American women, and that Culture Wars-era debates over representations of race and sex severely constrained these nascent cultural forms. Her article "Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction" appears in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, eds. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, and she is currently co-editing a volume on soap operas, Searching for Soaps' Tomorrow, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington.